Many parents who come to my events are excited about my becoming a tech-positive parent...up to a point. But they are also sick of battling with their kids. Some of them harbor an idealized version of the past, which can lead to a negative impression of technology. Here are some "next steps" to help.
Mayim Bialik is a TV star (The Big Bang Theory) and neuroscientist who also writes a popular blog on raising kids today's world. I was delighted and surprised when I found out that she read my new book, Screenwise – and wrote a review on Kveller.com!
Kids love Minecraft. Sometimes parents don’t understand why. Here’s a little insight straight from some avid Minecrafters, with a short list of some great resources for parents who want to learn more about their kids’ obsession.
Distraction is a real issue with kids and tech. Having a plan can help mitigate the shortcomings of tech and help your kids find balance.
When I speak at schools in communities across the country, parents approach me with their concerns. In every community, technology as a distraction comes up as one of the most frequent—and urgent—issues that worry parents.
Recent data from iKeepSafe suggest that parents are right to be concerned, with 28% of teens reporting that their digital engagement interferes with schoolwork. Even outside the classroom, 44% of tweens admit that their digital pursuits take them away from other things they are doing, and 17% of tweens say that their digital engagement causes problems in relationships with friends and family.
Adults are hardly exempt from the distraction issue (myself included!), with 14% of adults acknowledging that they need to spend less time with technology. If this issue is challenging for adults, imagine how difficult it is for kids. Teens and tweens are in need of mentorship to help them navigate these challenges. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t ready to unplug completely as our digital engagement bring about significant advantages. We shouldn’t expect that our kids are, either. Let’s look at the issue more deeply.
This data is helpful as it breaks down some different scenarios for distraction/disruption. One of the biggest reveals, later in the study is how much teens and tweens online engagement can interfere with sleep. The is a huge issue, and can masquerade as distraction, as focus is difficult to achieve when you are exhausted!
Two Tech Attitudes – Which One Are You?
As I describe in Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, the research on kids and distraction falls into two broad categories: The Optimists and The Cautionists.
- The Optimists. Techno-optimists believe our minds are getting stronger because of digital technology. Freed from having to remember a ton of facts, we can create and link ideas together in new and interesting ways. Cathy Davidson argues that “monotasking” is not compatible with how our brains work.
- The Cautionists. Techno-cautionists believe we are all in “The Shallows,” skimming and scanning and not truly reading. Indeed, before we all jump into eTextbooks, we should look at some of the evidence that format matters.
While there’s more research to be done, there are studies like this one that suggest that we retain information better when it’s in paper form rather than digital form. One question to keep in mind: Is this true only for people who already have a history of learning from paper texts? Or are there properties of printed text that affect memory—such as the physicality of turning a page and knowing where you are in a book? And how is this different for digital natives—our kids?
Annie Murphy Paul says (in research summarized in Slate in 2013) that groups of college students doing important homework checked their phones quite frequently. We seek out breaks in our work and the mental work of toggling back and forth is where we risk sacrificing our best abilities. It seems like only a few seconds of interruption, but it takes us a while to re-engage and get back into the flow. This “dislocation” is a problem as we may get fatigued from the effort of repeatedly bringing ours minds back to a task. Thus, one hour of homework can take 2-3 hours, yet be more exhausting—but the effort is not from the work itself, but the work of constantly re-focusing.
What this may suggest, is that for major work (a longer paper or a serious assignment), your teen or tween student should print out her drafts and proofread them on paper. Editing on paper may be better for many of us. Paperless sounds great and is very ecologically desirable, but many of us need to proofread our most important work on paper. Let’s dive a little deeper into parents’ biggest concern about distraction—homework.
Homework and Distraction
Does this scene sound familiar? Your child goes up to her room to complete her homework—perhaps on a school-issued iPad. Three hours later, she isn’t finished. Was she perhaps iChatting or Facetiming with her friends? Perhaps it started out about the homework, but then she got pulled into other topics. Was she listening to music and “had” to make a new playlist? Did she get distracted by someone’s post on Instagram and feel she was missing out on a social “hangout” that very instant? Or was she just “old school” daydreaming and not focusing?
Most kids in elementary and middle school shouldn’t have 3-4 hours of homework. The homework epidemic is a topic for a whole different book, but do check with your child’s teacher for guidelines about how much time they expect homework to take. If it’s taking way too long (or not long enough), it could be an indicator that there’s an underlying problem.
Many kids need to unplug for homework. Again, check with your child’s teacher. Not all homework requires online time, so offline time (or even turning off your home wifi) during “home study hall” could be an amazingly effective tactic. Imagine the conversations with your spouse and the dishes that would get done if you couldn’t check your email right after dinner!
What You Can Do to Help Your Kids
If you observe that your children are struggling with distractions when completing homework on a tablet or laptop, collaborate with your kids to figure out how to tame the distractions. Here are some strategies—find which ones are best for your family:
- No double screening. Many students I’ve spoken to say their parents have rules about no double screening, but it can be a huge help. Though it requires some will power, put the other device away. Even if homework requires a tablet, for instance—stick to one device so you can focus.
- Use tech to fight tech. Some kids will appreciate and enjoy “distraction blockers” like Leechblock and Freedom. While this won’t solve the problem on its own, it can help! As I type this post, I am blocking social media myself. My friends’ babies are cute and breaking news is exciting, but I need to focus.
- Turn off the tech. Many parents find that simply turning off their home wifi really helps kids get their work done. Again, the Internet and connectivity is only a small part of most kids’ homework. Sure, they may be expected to be in an interactive space with classmates to post a comment, but that is likely only a tiny portion of their homework. Even a blog post as an assignment can be written offline and posted later.
- Start unplugged to get plugged. If your kids say, “but I need to (collaborate with my friends, be online, use the Internet, etc.) to do my homework,” have them complete all the non-Internet homework first and then have them do the plugged-in homework. Impose a time limit or be present yourself so that they know that they need to finish.
- Show your struggles too. Lastly, be open with your kids about your own experiences of distraction. Tell them your struggles—how it can be a drain on your productivity at work or that it feels tough to keep up with sometimes. Knowing this can be very helpful to them and make them feel like their own struggles are not “abnormal.”
Hope that you find these suggestions to be helpful. Our devices add a lot to our lives—both positive and negative. Digital Citizenship is about learning how to harness the positives and minimize the negatives. Distraction is not just about the devices, but how we use them. If you can get at the root cause of distraction, you will be in a much better position to mentor your kids on to fight through it and get their homework done!
Please share your most positive experiences with navigating distraction and any challenges in the comments! Do you have any best practices to share?
Devorah Heitner, PhD is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and the founder of Raising Digital Natives a resource for schools and families wishing to cultivate a climate of digital citizenship.
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The new digital tools of the 21st century offer unprecedented opportunities to create. Our most innovative schools are transforming from sites where the “empty vessels” (our children) are filled with knowledge to spaces where kids co-create knowledge with the teacher serving as “Lead Learner.” Libraries are changing, too. They are becoming active learning and creation spaces—not just a place to check out books.
“Screen time” is not what it used to be. For most of us, the concept of “media” is deeply rooted in broadcast media. And why not? We grew up with TV and radio—that is to say, with professionally-created content distributed in a one-to-many format.
The Internet changed all that, and what we see today is a much broader definition of media. Today’s digital natives don’t think of media as one-to-many. They think of it as participatory, not passive. That’s not to say that they won’t be happy perched in front of a TV program—it’s just that their view of media is not limited to that conception.
The Creativity / Consumption Continuum
When we lump everything into “screen time,” we fail to make a crucial distinction between creativity and consumption.
In actuality, it’s not binary—really, it is more of a continuum. For example, watching a TV show is clearly about consumption, but what about when your kids are tweeting along to a live broadcast? Or texting in their vote on American Idol? That’s a different relationship with the screen, to be sure.
What about watching a YouTube video about how to play Minecraft vs. making a “how-to” video on YouTube about Minecraft strategies? Even though they are employing the same platform (YouTube), the activities are completely different (passive vs. active).
There are also shades of difference in what they are creating, too. For instance, your teen might have a Tumblr blog (also known as a Tumblelog) with mostly reposted content—a collage, if you will. Or she could be writing her own original content rather than just curating others’ works? These are all shades in a rainbow of engagement.
So, what can you do you to foster this kind of creativity?
Setting Different Parameters
If kids are using their screen time for creativity over consumption, that makes you think differently about imposing limits, doesn’t it? It’s not passive “zombie time,” it’s learning and stretching their imaginations. What I recommend is rather than hard and fast “screen time limits,” consider the context. If your kid is composing a song on Garageband, maybe you might make that exempt from your family’s time limit rules. That would be very different that binge-watching a Netflix series. Though even binge-watching can have its place (out sick from school, the polar vortex like we have in Chicago at the moment, etc.), you can see how you might set different time limits on these different activities.
Writing and Creating
One way to help make the transition from passive to active is to encourage them to create their own books, music, and videos. There are so many great tools out there that are easy to use, and it might even be an activity that you can do together with your child. For instance, your kid can create her own book using Book Creator. Or how about a video of your favorite family activity using simple video editing software such as Windows Movie Maker or iMovie? Post it to YouTube, and it’s something your whole family could enjoy—even aunts, uncles, and grandparents!
Designing and Programming
Many tech folks idealize programming in Scratch or other programming languages as the ultimate in creativity with technology. As I have said elsewhere, programming is great! But only some kids will get excited about it—and you can’t force it. If your kid gets pumped up about designing houses, cars, fashion, or even a new kind of animal from within an app—those are all fantastic creative endeavors. But try not to value that over “simpler” creative projects. Using a drawing app to create original artwork is still creativity at work, and a offers a different level of engagement than simply scrolling though other people’s content?
Thinking Critically and Making Improvements
This is another great avenue for teaching important skills to your kids. How can you teach them to make assessments about existing content and/or products? Try to look at how kids are engaging with the world. You could have them create a parody of their least favorite TV show—why don’t they like it—and what they could do to make it better. Or maybe have them try to improve one of their video games. For kids not ready for actual video game design, they can prototype with pen and paper. This is a great way to get them thinking about how to make something better. Have them iterate different versions. You can introduce them to the idea of “user experience testing” if they seem ready to take that on. So many great possibilities.
Contributing to a Community
For many of us, social media is about consumption, but if used properly, it’s a great way to teach your kids about belonging to—and contributing to—a community. What are your child’s favorite hobbies? I’ll bet there’s a community out there for each of them. It could be crafting, knitting, cooking, playing guitar, soccer, video games—you name it. There’s a lot your child could learn about each of those activities. But even more importantly, it’s the opportunity to learn about the idea of making a contribution to that community. That is Digitial Citizenship for sure. You can model the idea of healthy participation, whether it’s in a digital or real-world community.
I hope this helps you think differently about your kids’ screentime. Anything strike a chord with you? Are there other things that you are already doing with your kids? I’d love to hear it—in the comments section below, on my Facebook page, or good old e-mail.
One of my favorite parts of Raising Digital Natives is presenting to parent groups, teachers and administrators. Frequently, parents and teachers share their experiences with me, so I learn as much as I teach. Being exposed to the concerns parents and teachers have about kids in the digital age is extremely informative and valuable to shaping the the ways Raising Digital Natives can help families and schools.
For educators, this list offers a helpful orientation to parent concerns that you may wish to address directly in your parent engagement communication. Here are some more ideas for how educators can respond to parent concerns. I’ve collected some of these common concerns from recent conversations with parents.
See if you identify with any of these concerns:
- How much “screen time” is too much?
These days, it seems children never get a break from technology. Whether at school or at home, for work or for play, there’s always a screen in the room. But at what point do the harms of digital devices outweigh their benefits? When is it time to disconnect?
- How much video game time is too much?
Kids love their video games. If left alone, many kids would have no problem at all spending an entire day building and exploring on Minecraft. While this type of gaming does have its benefits, most adults will agree that a day-long gaming marathon is excessive.
- Are social skills at risk?
Sometimes, kids will choose playing with a computer over playing with their friends. While gaming can be social, is this damaging to their socialization? Does excessive screen time cause kids to miss out on learning how to deal with important social scenarios? How harmful is the lack of real, face-to-face interaction to their social development? In Chapter five of my book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World, I address the idea that empathy is the app and that kids can learn to consider the people they game with or share social networks with in thoughtful ways.
- How do you ensure safety on the Internet?
It’s no secret that the Internet is chock-full of content that is not appropriate for children. Younger children may be unaware that this type of content—as well as more serious online dangers—exist, they also may not know how to avoid them. How do you protect your children and stay Web-safe without infringing on their browsing privacy?
- Is traditional learning at risk?
When tablets replace notebooks in the classroom, opportunities for digital learning are arguably limitless. However, perhaps children do benefit from old-school, pen-and-paper techniques. By eliminating the traditional methods of teaching, are their developmental learning tools suffering in some way?
- How can a child focus with so many distractions?
“But I need my computer to do homework!” Children can’t be good students without finishing their work, often on computers and/or tablets. But computers, tablets, and other devices are often multi-purpose. That means that they also have games and other opportunities to connect with friends. When tempted by things more fun than homework, how is it possible to let kids use technology but still keep them focused? In Screenwise, I share how to co-create solutions to distractions, while acknowledging that we ALL get distracted.
- Can kids still find fun without technology?
Are the days of riding bikes and climbing trees entirely behind us? When video games and computers offer instant and easy distractions, what happens to the “traditional” ways that kids play? Can kids still independently find amusement, and can we trust them to find creative and productive ways to stay entertained?
- What should parents of different age groups expect?
While many of these questions persist as kids grow, oftentimes, new ones arise. Every age group uses and understands technology in different ways. What particular issues should parents of a six-year-old be concerned about, and how do they differ from those of a twelve-year-old?
- Does social media create “FOMO?”
A major cause of social stress for children and teenagers is the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO. Will the sad feeling of not getting invited to the birthday party be made worse by scrolling through the group selfies from the party on Instagram. How do we avoid this, and how do we deal with it if it arises? Kids talk about how to manage Exclusion in the Instagram Age in this post.
- Is the parent/teacher connection at risk?
Rest in Peace, Red Pen. With tablets replacing traditional homework methods, parent involvement almost inevitably decreases. This is a surprise to some parents—something they weren’t expecting. When it’s harder to see teacher feedback on homework, how can parents bridge that gap with educators in order to continue to help their kids in the same way? I’ve also written some guidelines for parent/teacher communication in the digital age.
Do you have other concerns about children and technology that I haven’t addressed here?
Check out my new book, Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World. Let me hear from you! I’ll be sharing solutions and strategies for each of these concerns on my blog and in the book that I’m currently writing. Would you like a free chapter of Screenwise?
Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you!
Every time I give a talk, people ask me what is “normal.” I also get lots of notes like the one below and they are challenging to answer as I believe this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Here is how I responded to one thoughtful dad who came to a recent talk.
I attended your talk at ______ last month. I found it very informative. I had wanted to stay after your talk, but there were so many people waiting to talk with you, that I just did not have enough time. My question is, At what age developmentally do you believe a child would be ok using one of these hand held gaming devices? Our son is 5 1/2 years old. We do not allow him to play any hand held or tv/computer games, such as a DS or X-Box, etc. He sees his friends playing with them and continues to ask for one. We feel he is not fully developed enough to have any time on it. We had a Leap Frog for Christmas one year and he seemed way too over stimulated.
We want him to be social and to interact with others. And we are not sure at what age he would be developmentally ready. Any advice?
Good for you for thinking twice! Happy to do a 30 minute consult with your family, but my “standing on one foot” response is…
A child of 5 1/2 may be cognitively “ready” and have the motor skills for some games on the DS or X Box–but that does not mean you should reconsider your approach if it is working for you. At 5.5 your concerns about overstimulation are very real—what you see after the Leapfrog experience or after he uses a friend’s x-box indicates that that is how his mind and body responds right now. Maybe that is find occasionally, but your don’t want him so hyped up every day!
Keeping handheld gaming devices out of your house entirely (for now) may be easier on your family than constantly setting boundaries about them. This time of year is tough, but try sledding or other winter go tos (indoor swimming?).
While video games may be more cognitively engaging than TV, a little TV during down/tired times of day may be restful while the games are not—so I think rather than a blanket “screen time” policy, it does make sense to think through how your child responds to each experience.
When he’s seven or eight, you can revisit. The problem solving aspect of games, and the opportunities ofr collaboration can offer great learning opportunities. Also, check out the wii sometime (maybe on your own…) to see if you can imagine some games the whole family might enjoy…In the meantime, see if there are any great board games he might like at this age.
You can trust your judgement as a parent that he does not “need” a hand held-gaming device in Kindergarten or 1st grade!
If you are clear and un-ambivalent about when you will reconsider, (ie when you are seven or eight we will think about it) that might curtail some whining….and even then–of course you will want some rules. But as I said–it is so much easier not to have it than to constantly be trying to “tame the beast” in your own home!
Good for your for observing your child’s responses and taking a thoughtful approach!
Raising Digital Natives
I just went to a great talk by Mike Lanza about his book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into A Place For Play. He is more strongly opposed to screentime than I am, but I thought many of his points about facilitating kids’ resilience, independence, leadership and fun by creating inviting playspace, building connections with neighbors and then sending the kids out to play are terrific ideas. I especially like how Lanza considers the lack of opportunities for kids do do things like a pickup game or other unsupervised play to be a social problem that all families need to think about and proactively work to change.
One of the positives Lanza mentions about cellphones is that they let kid have a longer tether from “hovering” parents. More room to roam. He sees the screen world/virtual world as taking too much away from the “real” world…but he also cited some examples of positive family time with technology as a basis for exploring the “real world.” My own orientation would be to draw the line between real and virtual worlds as a little more wavy…
My key takeaways were a) excitement that we already live in a “playborhood” with great neighbors and lots of community b) Many of the ideas about changing our physical space to encourage more independent play are do-able, and don’t have to be super expensive.
One idea that I love is a having a 1 week “block camp” to let all the kids on your block know each other. I could see that really taking off on our block. We already have a great 4th of July parade, and some other really nice traditions… I recommend checking out Lanza’s book and blog!
While my main endeavor is to help parents integrate the research on media and kids, and raise thriving digital natives-I was just part of an excellent discussion at ORD Camp 2012 about analog play. I was reminded, by a bunch of super smart techie dudes (all dads) that forts are fun, and that the USPS will send you super large boxes. Tried an alternative today with a sheet, a radiator and couch. I built a lovely tent with my kid. He loves Good Night Animals, so he put all his little guys in there to snuggle. Very fun on a cold day.